U.S. forces accused of shooting Sunni allies

BAGHDAD — Members of a Sunni Muslim group that was formed with American backing to fight Sunni militants charged Wednesday that a lengthy U.S. air and ground attack killed at least seven of its fighters.

Mansour abd Salem, one of the leaders of the Sunni Awakening council in Taji, north of Baghdad, charged in a television interview that U.S. forces had "deliberately" killed members of the group in a "hideous" assault.

The U.S. military said that the operations targeted armed "associates of senior al Qaida in Iraq leaders," killed 25 suspected terrorists and detained 21 suspects.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, the U.S.-backed Iraqi government seized the offices and shut down the radio station of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a major Sunni group that's voiced support for al Qaida. In a television interview, the group's leader, Sheik Harith al Thari, who's now in Jordan, once said that, "We are from al Qaida and al Qaida are from us."

American forces have enlisted local groups such as the Sunni Awakening council to battle al Qaida in Iraq, but the attack in Taji threatens to revive Sunni hostility toward the U.S., which has toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime, disbanded the Sunni-led Iraqi military and barred members of Saddam's Baath Party, most of them Sunnis, from government jobs.

The Iraqi and American accounts of the attack are completely different.

Abd Salem of the Sunni council said that U.S. aerial attacks began at 10 p.m. Tuesday and that his brother, Malek abd Salem, contacted U.S. troops in Taji and asked them to stop. At 1 a.m., he said, his brother spoke again with the U.S. military.

Four hours later, he told Al Jazeera Arabic Satellite News, aerial attacks resumed, and U.S. ground forces killed everyone in sight. Abd Salem said the group's parked cars were draped in fluorescent banners that the U.S. military had provided to identify them as Sunni allies.

The U.S. military said that late Tuesday, "coalition forces observed several armed men in the target area and, perceiving hostile intent, called for supporting aircraft to engage." After the aircraft fired, "intelligence reports indicated the men unloaded an anti-aircraft weapon from the target and moved to a secondary location," after which U.S. ground forces engaged the men.

In the operations, 25 people were killed and 21 people were detained, said Maj. Brad Leighton, a spokesman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq. During the operations, two large weapons caches were found that included surface-to-surface missiles, rifles, pistols, grenades, mortars, components used to make improvised explosive devices and anti-aircraft weapons, Leighton said.

"At this point we have no indication that we were engaging any ally of any sort," he said. "There's no reason for any of these volunteer groups to have anti-aircraft weapons or be manufacturing IEDs (improvised explosive devices) of any sort."

Sunni clerics expressed concern Wednesday that the Iraqi government's decision to shut down the Association of Muslim Scholars could divide Iraq's Sunni community. They said the operation should have been carried out with greater restraint.

"Its closure upset us all because the association is a symbol," said Sheik Mahmoud Ali. "It would be better to have a meeting and change the leadership of Harith al Thari . . . . We have had enough of violence, and this is a violation against the association, which has been considered an icon of the Sunnis."

Guards forced employees of the Umm al Qura mosque, in the west Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliyah, to leave the mosque before the government-funded Sunni endowment, which oversees mosques and Sunni shrines, declared the association closed for supporting al Qaida. Its radio station also was shut down.

The Association of Muslim Scholars once claimed to speak for more than 3,000 Sunni clerics in Iraq. But its influence has dwindled, and most Sunni clerics have cut their ties to the group.

Khalid al Mullah, the head of Iraq's Clerics Group, which was formed this year as an alternative to the Association of Muslim Scholars, said that although he's angered by al Thari's recent support of al Qaida, Iraq is free and no one should be silenced.

"We are in a new Iraq where no establishment, whether it is government or non-government, can eliminate another entity," he said. "This incident must not be a reason for our division."

Also Wednesday, the military announced the deaths of four more U.S. soldiers. Two were killed in Baghdad Wednesday, and two died from wounds sustained in Diyala province.

(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent.)